Pro Golfers Like Mickelson Hit Hole in One on Investing Tips

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Levi Brown meets with his financial advisor at least every two months to go over his investments, but he has never called him up and told him to buy or sell a stock, according to his money manager.

Brown, however, moves in a different world from Phil Mickelson, whose corporate sponsors include Barclays (BCS) and the accounting giant KPMG.

"You don't see many NFL players or NBA players with a KPMG endorsement. I think it's just a different line of business in golf," says Robert Luna, CEO of Phoenix-based SureVest Asset Management, which manages investments for Brown as well as several former pro athletes outside of golf.

Though initial reports linking pro golfer Phil Mickelson to an insider trading inquiry now appear to have exaggerated his involvement, pro golfers have access to senior corporate executives that is unique even in the rarefied world of professional sports, say money managers and agents with ties to top athletes.

On May 30, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both reported Mickelson was the focus of a federal insider trading investigation, along with investor Carl Icahn and professional sports gambler William Walters. On June 11, however, the Times backtracked, stating "Mickelson's ties to the investigation are weaker than previously reported." For example, Mickelson never traded shares of Clorox (CLX) as the Times had originally written. 

Mickelson nonetheless isn't totally in the clear, according to the Times, as investigators still have questions about trades he made in Dean Foods (DF).

One sports agent who represents several of the world's top golfers (not including Mickelson) tells TheStreet that Mickelson has a reputation as one of the sport's more active investors.

A representative for Mickelson forwarded a comment he made at a recent press conference

"With an investigation going on, I'm not going to comment any further on it. But I'll continue to say that I've done absolutely nothing wrong," the golfer told reporters.

Calls to Walters and Icahn placed Friday afternoon were not immediately returned.

Golfers run the gamut from those who take no interest at all in their investments to those who monitor them daily, according to this agent.

For golfers who do play the market, opportunities to get up close and personal with business leaders are frequent, notes Jon Najarian, a former pro football player and CNBC personality who co-owns a firm called Monster Asset Management of America, which invests on behalf of several current and former pro athletes.

Najarian suspects Mickelson's sponsorship deal with KPMG requires him to play golf with clients of the firm. KPMG declined to comment on the specifics of his contract, but one person familiar with the terms of corporate sponsorships says such an arrangement wouldn't be unusual.

"You and I know that the customers he's playing with aren't Joe Shmo. The customers he's playing with are the heads of very successful companies that KPMG is courting," Najarian says of Mickelson.

Indeed, evidence of pro golfers playing with senior corporate executives isn't difficult to find. And because golf is a leisurely sport that takes a long time to play, it affords plenty of opportunity for wide-ranging conversation.

The amateur golfers who teamed up with a professional player at this year's AT&T  (T) Pebble Beach Pro Am tournament are far from amateurs in the business community. Participants included FedEx (FDX) sales and marketing chief T. Michael Glenn, Sun Microsystems (now Oracle (ORCL)) co-founder Scott McNealy and Santander Consumer USA Holdings  (SC) CEO and Chairman Tom Dundon.

Conversations about business wouldn't need to contain material nonpublic information to be valuable, Najarian points out. Hearing executives from a few different industries sing the praises of Twitter  (TWTR) or Priceline  (PCLN) might provide incentive to look more closely at investing in one of those companies.

"Chatter about 'Well, what do you like here? You think we're going any higher? Is the market done? Where are you seeing opportunities?' Just casual conversation like that could be a trigger for a trade from a guy who's got a lot of disposable income like Phil," Najarian says.

It is difficult to know how many golfers put such information to good use. But because playing golf is more expensive than, say, basketball or soccer, the sport tends to attract players from wealthy or at least middle class families who know more about money management than people without money to invest, observes Scott Bombeck, a certified financial planner in charge of Philadelphia-based Acanthus Associates.

Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that 78% of NFL players are "bankrupt or in severe financial stress" within two years after their retirement. Sixty percent of NBA players meet a similar fate within five years after they leave the league, according to the magazine. 

Many of Bombeck's clients, who include pro football, baseball and basketball players, "don't have that basis of understanding, that background to even seek that out -- to know that, 'hey, I'm hobnobbing with CEOs and whatnot: I can get the inside track on some things,'" he says.

The bigger risk for those clients is that they will fall prey to a scam.

"Where they really run into problems is people coming to them and saying, 'Hey I've got this great idea: you can get in on the ground floor.' And potentially becoming more a victim than a white collar criminal."

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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